On Friday, 20th October, I was the guest storyteller at Brisbane improv troupe Big Fork Theatre’s “Cool Story Bro“.
At “Cool Story Bro,” the guest storyteller shares tales from their past, based on audience prompts, which then become fuel for improv sketches by the troupe. It’s an interesting format with roots in the work of the Upright Citizens Brigade, which has been home to the likes of Amy Poehler, Donald Glover, and Aziz Ansari.
You can watch Tina Fey doing this kind of storytelling here:
I’m no Tina Fey, but I did my best. My stories came from the audience call-outs “cats”, “whales” (or “Wales”), and “first kiss”. As always with these things, it was entirely terrifying & nerve-wracking right up until the moment you stepped on stage and just had to do it.
I’ve been getting all excited about memories lately – how they blur the bounds between fact and fiction, how they might be shared or transplanted between us. And I like challenging myself to get out of my comfort zone.
I found stories from my life and told them messily and honestly, with plenty of detail for the improv troupe to riff off. In turn, they made skits about talking meteorites, a school for nervous possums, and TV cookery shows. It was fun to see your experiences reworked into something that preserved only the vibe; details warped and reworked into new contexts, themes you hadn’t spotted in your own tale coming to the fore.
I’m kind of hung up on memories and time travel. I spent a chunk of my twenties studying refugees, exiles, and emigres, the people who escaped the rise of fascism in Europe.
The people I studied were dead and now lived on only in memory. Their lives had become difficult to excavate, subject to conflicting accounts and interpretations, hard to distinguish from fiction, and yet still imbued with the truth of experience, even if you could never quite extract that jewel from the rock in which it was embedded. It’s amazing how swiftly sediment builds up over a real life after it ends.
Time travel fiction is the memoir’s cousin. The fantastic conceit in its modern form, as Adam Roberts reminds us in an essay for the British Film Institute, is nothing but a myth of narrative control.
In time travel stories, we rewrite our past, present, and future, or imagine divergences, parallel narratives that could have been. Wells imagined a time vehicle ranging across the course of evolution, to the dying days of life on Earth. And in A Christmas Carol, Dickens used time jumps and forking destinies to explore personal and social redemption through the life of Scrooge.
We remember. We retell. We project forward, or back, and share something that is true in its own way. We travel in time.
I was at a funeral for a friend who’d died at 88 years old. Talk turned to old age. As we sat shiva, someone spoke of their elderly mother, who was a New Yorker, but had drifted back in memory, losing herself in childhood recollections of ice-skating in Germany before the war.
I told myself that whatever you lose in the material world, they can’t take away your memories.
I’m not too classy to say that such thoughts remind me of Leonard Nimoy’s final post on social media.
Now I find myself thinking about the new Blade Runner, which turns on the question of whether a memory is true or confected, whether it is stored in the head of the person who experienced it or has been implanted from another.
Science fiction is a good place to contemplate the workings of memory. Stories about androids and robots and artificial people let us think about our worries at one remove.
In James Roberts’ always superlative Transformers comics, the characters are robots and their consciousness is subject to a kind of editing which is still beyond human experience. Not only memories can be reread, redacted, or rewritten by robotic “mnemosurgeons”; in one issue a friendship is extracted as the price for a medical procedure – experience and feeling as an editable material.
Some time after wallowing in all this, I sat with my friend David and told him about my conviction: hold on to your memories, because no cruelty will be able to take them away, whatever you lose in the material world.
David is a scientist. He listened, then shot me down. Memory is messy, constructed after the fact, he told me; psychologists have shown that it’s prone to error, revision, and manipulation.
Improv from monologues is a different kind of memory transplant, from the performer to the audience. It’s unpredictable, public, meant for entertainment, tinged by stage fright and eagerness to please, potentially embarrassing.
You should try it. It’ll teach you a lot about how we tell the story of who we are.
I recommend you start here. Before you forget.